The Toronto Raptors are the underdog in the Eastern Conference Finals, there's no arguing that. Despite having a superb regular season that finished with a record number of wins for the team and a #2 overall seed in the playoffs, and after dispatching their first two foes, they've run up against one of the best teams in the league who has arguably the best player in the world. Now headed home for game six, they are on the ropes trailing in the series 3-2 with the perennial powerhouse trying to close them out...sound familiar?
If you were a fan of the Denver Nuggets back in 2009 then it certainly should. The paragraph above can just as easily describe that Nuggets team as it can this Raptors unit. The similarities extend beyond just their paths through their respective seasons as well. After failing to escape the first round previously in franchise history, the Raptors finally accomplished that this season. The Nuggets had been perennial first round exits for 5 years leading into 09 when they finally got over the hump and both teams had to be eager to get the taste of the previous year's playoffs out of their mouths as both had suffered embarrassing sweeps.
There's similarities to be found in the rosters as well. The Raptors are led by Kyle Lowry, a scoring point guard who is also a heady defender and a good ball distributor, and DeMar DeRozan, a score first athletic wing who thrives in taking advantage of mismatches in isolation. The 09 Nuggets were lead by Chauncey Billups, another scoring point guard with good ball distribution, and Carmelo Anthony, practically the poster child for isolation offense over the past decade. Now with Bismack Biyombo inserted in the starting lineup, the Raptors have a 6'9" defensive enforcer who also is an athletic finisher at the rim offensively, very similar to the role Kenyon Martin filled for Denver. Jonas Valanciunas, who is slowly returning to the lineup, has a game that's really not all that much different from Nene. Terrence Ross and J.R. Smith, Demare Carrol and Dahntay Jones, they're not perfect comparisons for players but both teams had a similar design in their roster construction, which is ironic because the same guy who built these Raptors, Masai Ujiri, is also the guy who tore down those Nuggets.
The big question now is will the Raptors face a similar fate as the Nuggets did. After dismantling the then New Orleans Hornets and quickly dispatching the Dallas Mavericks, the Nuggets finally ran up against a team too talented to overcome in the Los Angeles Lakers who had arguably the best player in the world at the time in Kobe Bryant. Bryant was of course supported by several star players such as Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom. The Raptors have a very similar task in facing off against LeBron James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers. Denver found themselves trailing 3-2 in game six of the conference finals at home and ultimately would wind up falling to LA and never returning to the conference finals again. Is Toronto doomed to the same fate?
If they are then as much as the game and the approach has changed in the past 7 years, what it takes to get a team over the top is still relatively the same. A team like these Raptors or the 09 Nuggets who is a collection of good players led by a pair of very good players isn't likely to be able to capture the ultimate prize because inevitably they run up against a team of very good players led by a superstar. In fact, it seems to take a pair of superstars to ultimately reach the goal of winning a championship these days and perhaps that's why a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder are finding success because while they too rely heavily on a similar pairing of scorers, Russels Westbrook and Kevin Durant is a far superior pairing to either Lowry/DeRozan or Billups/Anthony. The big difference for Toronto will be if they indeed can somehow overcome the stacked Cavs roster, they only will find themselves as underdogs again when they face either the Golden State Warriors or the Thunder in the finals whereas the Nuggets very likely would have been favorites to beat the Orlando Magic in 2009 had they been able to overcome the Lakers.